[27 April 2009]
An enduring image I have of Tim Easton is him warming up for an outdoor gig in Walla Walla, Washington. The opening act was mid-set. Easton wandered off with his acoustic Gibson. After a few minutes, I went to find him. He was wandering down a railroad track, harmonica on his neck, playing “All the Pretty Girls Leave Town”. It occurred to me in that moment that most of his music may come from situations just like this. What for most of us is a photograph is to Tim Easton a song. For a decade now he has been putting these pictures to music and forging paths that are his own. While the rest of his industry is busy with the sky falling, he wanders and writes. The product of those wanderings and writings are always honest, compelling and delivered in a way that only Easton can.
His latest, Porcupine, is different though. It’s a 14-song cycle that doesn’t so much pick up where Ammunition left off as it does light off all that Ammunition on fire and watch is blow. This is not the Tim Easton who crooned his way through “Next To You”. This is the Tim Easton who commanded the stage with bands like the Whipsaws, Two Cow Garage and Rosavelt.
Porcupine opens with a count off and then a rockabilly riff, with Easton laying lyrics over the top. More in line with his release Special 20, the lyrics end up in a duel with the guitar that plays out loose. “Broke my Heart” is more like Ammunition. The newlywed Easton seems to be more focused on relationships, going so far as to proclaim that ‘’there are only two things left in the world / just love and the lack thereof” . Easton seems to have resigned himself to love when he sings, “you know you can’t run away this time.” This song is an example of where all the worlds of Tim Easton come together: the rocking Special 20, the experimental Truth About Us the and the angry Ammunition. All in one space, Easton is at the top of his game. Porcupine does have a re-inclusion of the song “Baltimore” for no discernible reason, but it’s a great song, so it’s welcome in the mix.
The title track is a greasy dirge with an ominous bass line and a vocal delivered through a wall. There is a surf guitar solo in the background that feels more David Lynch than Gidget. Easton’s take on darkness achieves its aim. “Stormy’ starts with a Duster Romweber feel. It is on a track like this that you come to realize what a treat it is to hear Easton with a full band. That guitar-picking solo act is fulfilling but this is something more. This record brings what Levon Helm would have referred to as “an adult portion” of rock and roll.
“Get What I Got” is another bluesy Easton classic. When he is at his best, in a song like this, there are few peers. He slices through lyrics and the guitars are unrelenting. They are like stories told over a campfire by Gorf Murlix. Easton has always been a good guitar player, but this record puts him into the category of great.
In the years since Easton moved west, he seems to have lost a bit of the transient nature that characterized his earlier work. A few songs here send the signal that his wanderlust may be in retreat. Take “Northbound“, a love song to the Northern states. He name-drops a few states, but the gist of the song is that when Easton found Alaska, he truly found himself. He found fellow songwriters who shared his vision. That elusive moment where I saw him on the train tracks is anything but elusive. His home in Joshua Tree seems to have become his muse. While he loves to play live, the theme here seems to be that he is more grown-up and at home with himself. “Goodbye Amsterdam” seems to be the follow up to “Dear Old Song and Dance”. Both songs are Easton’s take on the life not of a traveler, but a lover of the road. To the singer, giving up a lover is the same as giving up the cities that inspire him. Sometimes you have to make a choice. In “Goodbye Amsterdam” Easton makes his.
The cd version of Easton’s latest album sounds fantastic. But it is on one of its original vinyl printings that the album really comes to life. Independently released, Easton took the time to hand-paint each album cover. The aesthetic is beautiful, but even the sound transcends in this format. It is the exquisite cross between music and visual art, and represents another step towards Easton’s actualization as an artist.
Porcupine is Tim Easton’s finest record since Special 20. It summons the front man in him and lets the guitars do the talking. If Ammunition was Tim Easton’s soft political side, then Porcupine is his muscle-flexing side. It should not be ignored.